Galina Krasskova recently made a list of books that she recommends. While many of these books are aimed at those beginning on this path of a more traditional kind of polytheist Paganism (as opposed to Wicca-flavored duotheist Paganism), there is a lot that can be learned for those of us who have been at this for a while.
Each one of these books sounds totally awesome and I’m sure I’ll be trying get all of them at some point. But I’m short on funds right now, so when I looked the list over and saw that a few of the books were available in PDF form for $5 a piece, I was delighted. I ended up deciding on buying the PDF files of Raven Kaldera’s Dealing With Deities: Practical Polytheistic Theology, and Calling to Our Ancestors by Sarenth Odinsson, both published by Asphodel Press. The first one I read was Kaldera’s Dealing With Deities, but eventually I’ll review Calling to Our Ancestors as well. I’m really glad that these books were available in PDF form for a cheaper-than-usual price. I’d like to own a physical copy of each eventually, but right now I would not have been able to read these otherwise. If you are interested in getting Dealing With Deities yourself, it is available here.
This 135 page book is packed with BIG ideas. I had to frequently stop and take breaks between sections to absorb it all, but I still finished it only a few days because whenever I had a few free minutes I wanted more than anything to go read more of it and think about the ideas expressed within. I can already tell that I’m going to back and re-read this particular book, or sections of this book, over and over. It has a lot of great things in there that need to be thought about, mediated on, discussed with other Pagans, and maybe then refined in your own writing.
There’s a strange idea that Paganism is a religion without theology. I think this is primarily because Paganism is still, mostly, a religion of converts. While there are now second-, third- and even fourth- generation Pagans (hey, let me know if there are any fifth-gens out there!), the vast majority of us were raised in monotheist households and found our way to the Gods later. If monotheist religon was used to beat us into submission when we were young, we are likely to carry baggage to certain words such as “Theology” and “piety”. Paganism also has a tenancy to attract some adherents who came here looking for community but who are otherwise really atheists, but who nevertheless like the emphasis on the earth and the “old mythology stuff” and that it’s not Christianity.
This book is the kind of stuff that Paganism sorely needs, books that really discuss about what it means to be a polytheist, about what that means for our theology, our worldview and our interactions with the Divine. Kaldera writes that he was at first surprised at the reception to his classes, upon which this book is based. This echoes my experiences when I was teaching Olympos in Egypt. The first few classes had a basic introduction to simple terminology, such as hard polytheism, soft polytheism, henotheism, duotheism, pantheism, panentheism, syncretism etc. Each time I taught my class, I didn’t even go that deep into the theology, but I saw the excitement and hunger in my students’ in eyes. There was a great interest in something other than a “Wicca 101” or “How to cast Love and Money Spells” class. I believe that is because there is a hunger for this information, even if the average Pagan may balk at the work “theology” because of the baggage they may carry from their monotheist childhood. Honestly, that is something we as a people need to work past. We cannot grow as a tradition if we are constantly defining ourselves by what we are not, instead of what we are.
I also gained some new terminology, which no geeky Pagan devoted to a learning Goddess can ever be unhappy about! Urdummheit, a German word which expresses the idea that everyone who lived in, as Kaldera puts it, “prehistoric or even ancient-historic times” was stupider than us. That basically any modern person is not just more knowledgeable about the workings of the universe, but measurably more intelligent. Obviously this is not a good thing, but an extremely arrogant and hubrisitic standpoint. But having a word to describe the phenomena is useful. There is power in naming things.
I particularly like the metaphor he uses about the Gods being like stalactites, with the lower end of the stalactite being the more human-like aspect and the “higher” you go, the less personal and more cosmic They become, basically.
Personal aspects―which always get pictured in my head as the little end of a stalactite―are the places where the Gods are closest to human. They argue, they fight, they make mistakes, they are short-sighted and do not access the full truth of their divine abilities. (Although when they err, they do that also on a grand scale.) They also love, with personal fervor as opposed to impersonal distance; they love each other in this way, and sometimes mortals as well.
This is not the kind of love that we think of as in “God loves me,” it is a deeply personal and passionate interest in someone, not a transpersonal “Yes, I love your divine spark gently from afar.” This is the kind of love offered when a God or Goddess comes to a worshiper and becomes an intimate companion who is always there for you when you need them, offering a shoulder to cry on without judgment for the justice of your pain. The shape of the relationship can still take many forms, …. but the key is that you can feel their subjective attention, close up, and you give them yours as well.
As we move up the symbolic stalactite, the aspects become less personal―and less interested in you personally. The higher aspect of a given deity is more emotionally distant, more archetypal, still recognizably them, but less human and more godlike. One could imagine it as that deity’s “higher self”. From the perspective of this aspect, they may still love you, but it is your own higher self that they love, and that love is more impersonal, transpersonal, loving your divine spark rather than your human frailties. From this point, their main interactions with you will have the end-goal of your own self-improvement―bringing you closer to that higher self by any means necessary―and your use in the improvement of the world. From this point, they see high and far and do not make the mistakes that their more human aspects make.
It is hard to describe the qualitative feeling between a humanlike or more godlike aspect of the Divine; it may be one of those many situations common to these interactions where we can only give a frustrating “I know it when I feel it.” The quality of the interaction is very different, and the humanlike eye-to-eye intensity is replaced with a sense of overwhelming awe. The gulf between us and them seems much more uncrossable with a higher-self aspect, whereas we are often amazed at how close they seem when they come to us in a humanlike aspect. (PAGE 37-38)
This is one of the most eloquent ways I’ve seen this concept described. The Gods are both human-like and not; They have flaws and can be short-sighted, and They can see farther than us and act for the good of you and the world. Our Gods are not simplistic. But this is the best description of how both can exist at once. It makes so much sense to me. I’ve had many experiences with various Deities at various points on the stalactite, both personal human-like ones and more distant transpersonal ones. Sometimes different aspects of the same Deities. But what is incredibly interesting to me is that I’m not sure if I’ve ever experienced the human stalactite-point of Athena; She has always, in all my interactions with Her (at least as an adult), been somewhat cosmic, distant, judge-like, interested in the Big Picture. I’ve always chalked it up to just being a part of Her nature, being something of a more emotionally distant Goddess of Justice.
When I was a child, I felt a female Presence comforting me through my difficult family life, and when I started to read Greek mythology I latched onto Athena’s name like my soul recognized something. Demeter, too, was Someone I loved as a child, although my relationship with Her would become more complicated as an young adult because I had some mother issues to work through before I would find my way back to Her (this year, the same year that I’ve started intensely worshiping Demeter, I also ended up “randomly” coming to something of a reconciliation with my mother. Funny how things like that tend to happen). But now I’m thinking that the human-like aspect of Athena was what I felt as a child, the part of Her that adopted Erechtheus, that the Athenians saw as their Virgin Mother, but as I matured She began to manifest to me only in Her “higher self” aspects.
Kaldera also covers others important Entities in polytheism, the Holy Powers that are not quite on the same level of Gods, such as ancestors, heroes, and spirits. This includes land spirits, elemental spirits, and plant and animal spirits. I particularly like how he describes the overarching spirit of each species of plant or animal, which he calls the Grandfather or Grandmother of that species. Up until now I have I usually just capitalized the word so you know if I’m talking about a living owl or the Owl spirit. But I like the sound of Grandmother Owl, so I think I may adopt it. But I wonder how he genders the overarching spirit, if its all from practical experiences, if the spirit tells him, or if its from guessing by the attributes of the species. Then again, I remember writing poems for Grandmother Spider years ago, out of the blue, with no one telling me why to add “Grandmother”. Inspiration, I guess, can comes straight from Them sometimes.
Here I must differentiate between the life force and personality of a specific plant or animal―that dog, that fly, that oak tree or clump of plantain―and the great overarching spirit of each species―Grandfather Wolf or Grandmother Mugwort. These very old and wise spirits have been referred to as “devas”, and the powers of the most popular ones have been recounted in myths and folktales (such as the “Elder-Mother” of Hans Christian Andersen’s story). If they choose to be in relationship with you, they can help with many problems from physical health to spiritual wisdom. They usually have relationships with the Gods themselves as well, and can “broker” a connection in that way. It is also important to remember that some animal and plant Grandparents chose to link themselves wholly with humanity and nourish them―partly out of self-interest, but mostly out of love. These are the common livestock and food-plant species, the Ancestral Fathers and Mothers as they are called in my tradition, and we are still dependent on that relationship today, even if we are in partial violation of the contract due to harmful agricultural practices. (PAGE 51)
Kaldera also covers an interesting idea of the Gods existing in nonlinar time, and myth as something that is constantly happening. I’m not sure if I believe this or not; this is book is all his personal theology, and that’s okay. We don’t need a Pagan Pope to talk about these things. Anyway, in his belief, a part of the Gods is always experiencing Their myths, all the time. Meaning, for example, a part of Kybele is still Agdistis. A part of Zeus is still fighting with His Father Kronos. A part of Prometheus is still chained on the mountain, with a eagle tearing out His liver each day. I’m going to let him explain this, since it’s his idea:
When we deal with Gods and their natures, we have to deal with the fact that they do not exist in the same linear time-scale that we do. Some of them have linear myths that follow them throughout their lives; others have no real “stories” that we have retained records of, but simply seem to appear as cameos in the myths of other Gods. Some even have conflicting myths, or share myths with other God/desses, a situation that makes us throw up our hands in frustration when we try to compare their stories to our own very linear experience of time.
For us, our lives are more marked by Doing than Being. It is not that we cannot experience pure Being―and experiencing that state is certainly part of the spiritual goals and practices of many religious traditions―but by the nature of our world and our existence, Doing is very important to us, and we mark the passing of Time by the effects that the physical world has on us and how those affect what we Do. While we remember Being in different states in the past, those are―in most cases―memories, while for the Gods those moments are just as real to them as the present moment, and they can become the being who is living that moment again at any time.
This is especially true for the “formative” experiences in their lives, the ones that shaped their natures and made them what they are. Formative experiences―and especially traumatic ones―are important in shaping who we are as well; I do not mean to discount that, but it is never as literal for us as it is for a deity who is of a more monolithic nature than we are. If we go through a strongly shaping―and perhaps shattering―experience, we may say that some part of us is still there, living and reliving that experience and never getting away from it. However, when we say that, we mean it metaphorically. For a deity, this is quite literal. Some aspect of them is formed in that moment, and that aspect can be called upon, and if they appear they will be just as the God or Goddess was in that formative moment, even if that moment is far in the past. They will be aware to some extent of the future divine self that you are familiar with, because the future―while it is variable and not set―is more known to them than it is to us.
To use an example: … If I call upon Sigyn―the second wife of the Norse trickster god Loki and the goddess of compassion and endurance in Northern Tradition Paganism―as her aspect as the blithe child bride, if she comes she will exist in that moment, and act and react from that moment. My presence will anchor her to a future where she must see her children destroyed and her husband imprisoned and tortured for hundreds of years, and where she must stay by him, starve with him, and comfort him for all that time until he is released. That future will be a shadow that lies over the innocent child bride, and she will not be unaware of it, but it will not be her reality at that moment. Should I call upon her as the Mourning Mother trapped in the cave with her suffering husband bound with their slain son’s intestines, if she comes it will be in the agony of that moment as well. Because I know that they will eventually be freed, there will be the echo of hope hanging over the terrible grief she carries. However, even if she were to come as the Sigyn who is now free to live in a small cottage in Jotunheim with her husband, she could be transported back to that moment if it was necessary for our interactions―and it would not be “the past”, it would be What Is Happening Now. It’s a difficult concept for us to understand and follow, but I think it is enough that we know it exists.
As you can imagine, the “mythic moments” are different for a more humanlike aspect of deity than they are for that deity’s higher self. The more personal and humanlike aspects experience those moments with much more intensity; they are utterly immersed in each one as it happens to them. The higher self of a deity is a little more distanced from the intensity, and has integrated those moments more fully into their being. (PAGE 101-103)
Kaldera writes this section as if it is an extremely confusing for humans (and it is) but it is not altogether unheard of. I had somewhat of a familiarity with this idea, and it made a kind of sense to me, because, of all things, of a previous exposure to something close to it in Star Trek. As I read this section, I was repeatedly reminded of the Prophets on Star Trek: Deep Space Nine that were worshiped by the Bajorans. In DS9, when Captain Sisko first encountered them in the wormhole, they had no concept of linear time since they live outside of time and perceive the past, presence and future as one thing, one eternal moment. Captain Sisko taught them about how linear beings experience time and in so doing was thrust into a religious role that he didn’t want, that of the Emissary of the Prophets, who the Federation and Starfleet people think of just as wormhole aliens but are Gods to the Bajorans. Sisko’s spiritual journey over the seven season run of the show is one of the most fascinating aspects of DS9. I’ve actually been thinking about writing a “Star Trek for Pagans” series of blog posts. I see a lot of Pagan symbolism in Star Trek, and it’s always been my happy place, since I was a kid. In fact I’m pretty sure Star Trek may have been where I first encountered the idea of polytheism, since I know I was watching Star Trek before I was old enough to read the Greek myths. I’ve actually been working on something about Klingon religion and its similarities to Paganism off and on for a few months. But I’m always leery about taking on too many projects that I won’t be able to finish, since that is an unfortunate habit of mine.
In any case, this book is important. More than just a devotional to a particular Deity, this book can help a person new to the practice to start to shed the monotheist cultural baggage and learn to think like a polytheist. Believing in many Gods but still thinking like a monotheist, like Kaldera points out, can lead to misunderstanding and problems, not least of which might be a sense of inadequacy if the new worshiper doesn’t immediately find a “patron” Deity to focus their attention on. Even for some one who has been doing this for a long time, I think it’s important to think about these things and wrestle with big spiritual questions. There’s so, so, so, much more talk about, but at some point I’ve just got to stop because I’m giving away too much from the book! Seriously, go read it. I know I’m going to end up re-reading it!!